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Change to compete

Some traditional publishers are now producing online content every bit as compelling, innovative and interactive as their pure player competitors. Some are not. For many, what is holding them back, says Craig Hanna, is their unwillingness to embrace organisational change.

By Craig Hanna

Many traditional publishing companies continue to struggle to compete online. They are seeing their traditional print circulations eroded by new online competitors, while their own efforts online fail to make up the gap in reach or revenue. Even more worrying is that some of the most successful online publishers are moving into the print arena, perhaps best exemplified by Magicalia Media’s purchase of Encanta Media last year.

Why is this happening? One viewpoint - and one that I concur with - is that it is because traditional publishers have failed to grasp the depth of change required to compete online. Instead, they have relied on a policy of hiring ‘experts’ and creating walled gardens where web teams often operate independently of the main print publishing groups.

In order to change from a traditional publishing company to one which can compete online (or in fact across any publishing channel), they need to embrace change wholeheartedly. Publishers must understand that a complete rethinking of structures, roles and responsibilities has to happen. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is just as certainly essential.

What should publishing companies do?

It’s not all doom and gloom. I believe that publishers are in a uniquely powerful position in today’s digital world; after all they possess domain expertise, are often well know brands themselves and can influence many of the purchasing discriminators that customers have through editorial insight, product reviews and recommendations.

With the right input of innovation, change and training they can thrive in the online world. If you want to get started, here are six key areas that often need addressing:

1. Set clear objectives for the site
Many site owners that I have worked with seem to lack a clear focus for their online properties. Targets are often defined by what has been achieved rather than by what is possible or what fits with the company’s objectives.

Your web properties shouldn’t be an add-on but rather a business in their own right, and one that works in conjunction with print. As such it needs to have its objectives clearly defined.

Typical objectives:
* What traffic do we want to see?
* How are we going to monetise the traffic?
* How are we going to measure engagement and brand value?
* What revenue will we expect from this work?
* How are we going to measure our success?
* What people and resources do we need in place?

Just like other aspects of your business, it won’t work if it’s a neglected afterthought. And if you don’t know how to set these objectives then you should learn, and quickly.

2. Senior management immersion
Many publishing companies that we work with are trying to embrace digital, but are doing so without a proper understanding of the channel at the very highest level. This makes good decision-making impossible and it slows and hinders the process of change so that frustration sets in. I know many cases (not just in publishing) of digital experts being hired to instigate change, but then leaving again in short order as they get frustrated by poor understanding from the board, delays in action and poor decision making. Obviously, this just puts you back to stage one.

Where senior management have immersed themselves in the digital world and gain an understanding beyond just the stats, we find that a new consensus quickly builds within the business and the process of change is both hastened and improved. Rupert Murdoch is the best example of this, having recently revived News Corporation’s digital strategy with great success.

3. Review existing structures
Online in 2007 requires that everyone in the business has at least some digital skills. It’s no longer the domain of a few ‘techies’ in the corner but a vital part of everyone’s job. Existing structures based on function (IT, Marketing, Sales, Editorial etc) are becoming less relevant as cross functional co-operation and integration is a vital element of most great websites.

Although there is no one right answer, publishers need to consider teams based around their ‘domain expertise’ as well as their traditional structures. This allows for much faster development of projects, a deeper understanding of an individual’s role in the process and accountability in performance.

Web 2.0, and the new levels of interaction with customers that this brings, is hastening these changes. New structures and tools can empower people at all levels in the organisation to contribute and communicate with customers directly, but these are often avoided because of the perceived risk to the business. The evidence however points elsewhere – if you don’t empower people to take up these conversations, your customers will simply go elsewhere – now that’s certainly a risk to the business.

4. Manage the need for people’s roles to change
Arguably, the most difficult area to confront is the need for people’s roles to change, and for a range of new skills to be acquired. Managing this process so that everyone understands the necessity of it is one of the greatest challenges traditional publishers face.

Let’s take editorial teams as an example. Traditionally, their role is one of editorial investigation and integrity moulded into snappy headlines and engaging articles. Little attention was spent on marketing or revenues. Today’s publisher, looking to exploit online, needs their editorial teams to understand much more about the wider context of the business.

In a successful multi channel publisher of the future, the editorial team will need to develop a range of new skills such as:

* Writing for the web. Writing for the web is not a simple case of copying what’s been done offline and adding a few links. For usability reasons, content must be shorter as people scan rather than read online. Headlines and content might need changing to reflect keywords that you want to appear in search engine searches (often a sticky topic as it can make headlines appear rather dull), and additional resources may need to be created to reflect the interactive nature of the medium (sound, movies etc).

Another example is the need to remove colloquialisms that don’t reflect what people actually search for. One publisher of a leading TV title always shortened the term Big Brother to BB on their website. Of course, people searching online for information didn’t and hence this leading site wasn’t being listed for a high traffic term.

* Search engine optimisation. A deep understanding of search engines is another essential skill of editorial teams, not only in terms of keywords mentioned above but also in terms of content structure, link building and various other influencing factors that Google uses to decide on ranking.

Take link building as an example. It is often the editorial teams that have the contacts and opportunities to gather links from other sites; it needs to become second nature that they consider this when working on stories. Views vary to the exact degree of reliance that Google puts on links when calculating search rankings, but there is a consensus that links remain the single most important ranking factor.

* The changing nature of content. Web 2.0 is changing the concept of publisher / creator / reader as people choose to create content themselves, and, more importantly from a publisher’s perspective, they look to add to content created by others. This dialogue has far reaching consequences for editorial teams who will now need to take ownership of the content for longer periods of time.

Instead of filing copy and moving on, they will need new skills that allow them to interact with readers in real time, to defend and justify views they’ve expressed and build relationships with readers in a way that wasn’t previously possible. For some, this will be easy and a simple extension of what they do already, but experience shows that for others this new interaction is not what they feel comfortable with.

* Commercial awareness. Editorial teams often left the commercial aspect of the business to others while they concentrated on editorial excellence. However, with search engine traffic often responsible for 70% of a website’s traffic, they need to understand the affects their actions may have on the revenue of the business. The need to understand how the number and quality of the visits the site gets is influenced directly by them and their ability to not just produce compelling editorial (which is still vital), but to do so in a way that works for search engines is key.

Similar cases for change are true for IT, Marketing and Sales. Without this change and the acceptance from everyone that it’s the way forward, traditional publishers will continue to struggle against online specialists.

5. Develop structures for support and training
These changes will be difficult to implement in many cases as people often resist change. I believe the arguments for change are compelling for all parts of the business, but outlining it clearly to all employees is not easy. Many will be frightened of the web, seeing it as a technology rather than just another communication channel. Only by ensuring that support and training is available as part of a managed process of change will you be able to retain your key staff and motivate them to embrace the new challenges the business is facing.

Even so, experience shows that for some people it will be more appealing to move on, so expect changes and plan for it.

6. Develop new revenue streams
Revenue in a Web 2.0 world is not just an issue of advertising revenue or subscription payments. The web has opened up a range of new opportunities, but many haven’t yet been adopted by traditional publishers. From micropayments to exploiting the value of data and metadata, the potential to raise yields is plentiful.

In a future issue of InCirculation, we’ll be looking in more detail at our publishing monetisation model and looking at how publishers can increase their revenue, without necessarily risking the business by investing in expensive increases in staff or infrastructure (although that’s needed sometimes!).

Lastly - and most importantly - there has to be a will to change from all areas of the business. Old attitudes have to be left behind and a new more agile way of thinking that embraces change, sharing and partnership needs to emerge.

Good luck and see you online soon.